Multisyllabic Decoding: Problems with the Six Syllable Approach

If you have been searching for a method to teach a child to read multisyllabic words, you've probably encountered the method that teaches the six syllable types. A child is expected to learn each of the six forms of syllable, then apply that knowledge as he's attempting to decode a word with several syllables. As you, yourself, learned that method did it ever occur to you that you weren't previously taught those six syllable types, but that somehow you managed to learn to read all those longer words you read daily despite that lack of knowledge? So, maybe that's not the best way to approach a multisyllabic word after all?

The Six Syllable Types

The first two types are 1) open syllables and 2) closed syllables. I'll discuss those later.

The third type is the vowel + e syllable, in which the vowel sound is represented by a split vowel such as the "i-e" in "hive" or the "o-e" in "home." Awareness of that syllable type prepares a child to read words like "livelihood" (live-li-hood" and "behave" (be-have). 

The fourth type is the two-vowel letter syllable where the vowel sound in a syllable is represented by a vowel digraph such as the "ow" in "grow," or the "ea" in "teach" and "head," or the "ay" in "clay."

The fifth type is the consonant + "le" syllable in which a syllable, usually at the end of a word, is spelled, for example, "ple," "tle," "ble," "cle," etc. Examples are "purple" (pur-ple), "turtle" (tur-tle), "marble" (mar-ble), and "uncle" (un-cle).

And the sixth and last type is the syllable ending in an r-controlled vowel, such as "or," "ar," "er," "ir," "eer,"  etc. Examples here are "fortune" (for-tune), "farflung" (far-flung), "mercy" (mer-cy), and "cheerful" (cheer-ful).

Confused yet? Don't be. Look at each of the last four types of syllables. Each of them just emphasizes code knowledge, specifically knowledge of the various vowel spellings and what each spelling's viable pronunciation options are.

Types Three Through Six Deal Primarily with Code Knowledge

Thus, with the third type, a child should be taught the concept of a split vowel during one-syllable instruction primarily, and then exposed to a few words where it appears in longer words. The main problem with applying the third syllable type to multisyllable words is that it's just not reliable. There are too many words like "sensitive" (sen-si-tive), "infinite (in-fi-nite)," and "literate (li-ter-ate)" where the vowel sound in the ending syllable isn't what it's expected to be from the rule.

The same criticism is especially true of the fourth syllable type. Clearly, here a child should be taught the various pronunciation options for the vowel spellings during one-syllable work. Once those are learned, they are easily applied to longer words, provided a child is taught to systematically test the various options.

The fifth type, the consonant + le syllable, is a trivial piece of code knowledge to teach. Just tell a child to say "ul" whenever he sees the letters "le" at the end of a word. Two or three examples normally suffices, athough there are a few points that can be made regarding spelling the various /ul/ endings in words like "purple," "total," "cancel," "pupil," and "symbol."

And the sixth type is just more one-syllable code. The pronunciation options for spellings like "ar," "er," "ir," etc., should be taught during one-syllable work before worrying about those spellings in longer words. Put another way, a child shouldn't be looking for the trailing letter "r," but should be identifying "ar," for example, as a single digraph representing a vowel sound.

The Big Problem with Open and Closed Syllables

So, most of the syllable types deal primarily with code knowledge, but what of the first two, the open and closed syllable types? The concept is clear enough. A closed syllable has a single vowel letter followed by a consonant. When that happens, the vowel sound is the short sound we learned in words like "hat," "net," "hit," "hot," and "hut." But when the single vowel letter ends the syllable, then the vowel sound is the long sound in words like "table," "be," "final," "go," and "unit."

The problem? The method puts the proverbial cart before the horse. To know the vowel sound, you first have to decide whether the syllable in question is open or closed. This is rarely obvious, which is why very few readers ever used this method to actually decipher a new unfamiliar word. Consider two similar words, "vapor" and "rapid." "Vapor" is divided as "va-por" with the open syllable rule declaring the letter "a" to be a long "a" as in "table" whereas "rapid" is divided as "rap-id" with the closed syllable rule indicating the letter "a" is to be a short "a" as in "cat." But examine each word again and ask yourself, "How is the child supposed to know that without first knowing the word's pronunciation?" Answer: He can't. Not possible. He first has to figure out the word before he can figure out which word starts with a closed syllable and which with an open one. And so did you, today, when you read those examples.

Some Considerations

The six-syllable method of decoding multisyllablic words is not effective. Most readers can easily deduce that on their own by asking if they ever used it. Some of you first encountered the method here today. But if you didn't know it, how did you learn to read? Inefficiently, slowly, hardly at all? I doubt it, and so do you.

Other methods are also taught. For instance, one method teaches a child to look for a word within a longer word, and to recognize familiar prefixes (like "re," "de," "dis," "un," etc.) and suffixes (like "er," "ed," "ing," etc.) That method has a child bouncing back and forth within a word while attempting to decode it, a terrible visual habit to encourage when reading.

Instead, a child should be taught the code, i.e., the viable pronunciation options for any particular spelling, and then taught a simple method of progressing through a word, from left to right, following simple rules that a six-year old can learn to apply, while testing the various options for the spellings that have more than one possibility. He should also not be taught traditional syllable breaks, but rather to break words into "chunks," tending to stop (with a few key exceptions) after the vowel sound in each chunk. Armed with enough code knowledge he will be able to easily learn to march left-to-right through words of many syllables, testing the vowel sounds and retesting as necessary, i.e., when his first attempt fails to yield a recognizable word.

A few examples: "Growling" is chunked "grow-ling." If he's reading "the growling dog" and pronounces "grow" to rhyme with "blow" he would get a nonsense word and then instead try "grow" to rhyme with "how," simply applying his knowledge that the "ow" spelling can represent either sound. 

Now consider the two words discussed earlier, "rapid" and "vapor." He says "ra-pid," testing the first option for the letter "a" and immediately recognizes the word. He then says "va-por" (using the same short-a sound) and gets a nonsense word. So he tries the second option, the long-a sound and gets the word. Essentially he's being trained to do exactly the same thing most adults do when faced with the name of a new drug name that they haven't heard pronounced before, i.e., trying various viable pronunciations for the vowel and consonant spellings to see what sounds reasonable. Maybe they even finally realize they've heard it, but not seen it spelled before, as they recognize a familiar pronunciation from a radio advertisement.

Conclusion

Existing methods being taught to children for reading multisyllabic words are generally not effective. The result is that children, particularly those who struggle with reading generally, tend to stick with their long-held strategy, which is......guessing. And until someone convinces them that a method works consistently enough to top their guessing habit, they'll stick with it.

Fortunately, that method exists. You can find it here on the OnTrack Reading website. It's been taught by the author to nearly two hundred children and has been used successfully by others, many working with students who have struggled with learning to read. 

The method is free, with all materials available as downloads here on the website. It's called the OnTrack Reading Multisyllable Method and it works. It's so easy to teach that one parent says that her older child picked it up and started using it while eavesdropping on lessons being given to a younger sibling.